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What CPS parents need to know heading into new school year

Chicago Public Schools held a series of back-to-school events throughout the city in August, including this one at Kelly High School. Besides providing information to parents, there were free dental exams, school supplies and food, as well as musical performances and an appearance by the Jesse White Tumblers. | Sun-Times Photo

Tuesday marks the first day of class for the more than 360,000 students enrolled in Chicago’s public school system, but the possibility of another teachers’ strike still looms.

The Chicago Public Schools faces a historic budget shortfall, too.

So what do parents need to know heading into the 2016-17 school year? Here are seven pertinent questions and answers:

1. Is a teachers strike coming?

Maybe, but not immediately.

Chicago’s teachers are working under a contract that expired on June 30, 2015. All the legal steps that the state makes teachers complete in order to strike have been carried out — including a strike-authorization vote and both the union and Board of Education submitting their “best offers” on a contract to an arbitrator.

The House of Delegates — a group of about 800 union members that governs the Chicago Teachers Union — will meet Wednesday to discuss whether CTU’s 25,000 members should strike for the second time since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office.

The union’s 40-member “Big Bargaining Team,” which is negotiating with CPS officials, thinks teachers should strike if there’s no contract by October — but union leadership would have to file notice with state government at least 10 days before striking.

That hasn’t yet happened.

“Right now we’re engaged in very aggressive negotiations,” schools chief Forrest Claypool said Monday. “Now that Labor Day is over, we feel like those talks will intensify with the teachers union. . . . We have a very generous proposal, we want to be as generous as we can possibly be with the teachers because they do a lot of good work.”

CTU president Karen Lewis and the three other officers plan to fan out at several schools Tuesday morning to discuss scenarios from the last round of negotiations.

Both sides say they think a strike can be avoided.

2. Then what’s the holdup?

The teachers union says it won’t stand for a contract that balances CPS’ budget on the backs of its members — and there are many issues in play. Under the school system’s multi-year contract proposal, for example, some 4,000 teachers who don’t qualify for raises based on their experience stand to see pay cuts in the second and third years of the deal.

3. What is CPS’ backup plan in case of a strike?

None. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Claypool said.

4. What do things look like in the schools compared to last year?

Overall, school budgets are down from where they were one year ago. CPS tried to not cut into per-pupil funding levels, but set this year’s funding levels where they were last February after an unusual round of mid-year budget cuts. Back then, lots of principals spent down their reserves to minimize staff losses in the middle of the year, so this year, they’re generally starting out with less overall.

Special-education funding also changed this year by falling under the jurisdiction of principals instead of CPS’ central office. The district has committed to meeting the federally mandated needs of each student’s individual education plan, but how that will happen remains to be seen.

5. Is any more money coming?

In some cases, maybe. School-by-school budgets will be finalized in about a month. CPS uses the number of students who show up on the 20th day of classes as its official count for each school and then doles out per-pupil funding accordingly. An enrollment bump translates into more funding. And schools that enroll more poor children — or kids considered English language learners — qualify for extra federal and state money, too.

But CPS’ $5.4 billion operating budget still contains a couple of big “ifs.” One is the final cash outlay the school system will have to make if a teachers’ contract is reached.

The other is whether state lawmakers will come up with an additional $215 million in funding that the Board of Education has included in its budget — but has yet to be approved by legislators. Absent that state aid, CPS will have to find — or cut — more money from its spending plan.

6. Assuming all the pieces fall into place, then what?

School leaders hope for some long-awaited stability. Late last week, chief education officer Janice Jackson announced a three-year strategic plan that prioritizes academic progress, financial stability and rebuilding trust between the district and families. In its eight pages, she laid out hopes that this year goes from “crisis management to managing for the future.”

7. Wait, Walter Payton College Prep just got an annex? Isn’t CPS broke?

It is, but the Board of Education has been borrowing money to keep school facilities up to date. And the city has been kicking in money from tax-increment financing districts to make improvements.

So in the face of ongoing budget woes, CPS also starts off the new school year with entire new schools. Dyett high school reopens on Washington Park to 150 freshmen as an open-enrollment school focusing on the arts and innovation. Southeast Area Elementary School, 3930 E. 105th St., opened for 1,200 students to help alleviate overcrowding at the far edge of the city. Three sparsely populated high schools in Austin will open as one school at 231 N. Pine called Austin College and Career Academy. And Canty Elementary School, 3740 N. Panama, also will open a new multi-million annex.